NEW YORK — The colors of Brandon Jackson’s short life filled the church and helped tell his tale of “promise and purpose.”
The bright green and gold jerseys on the dozens of high school football players, just like the ones Jackson used to wear. The NYPD blue on the colleagues of his mother, Morna Davis, a police detective. The white and gray uniforms worn by 10 bus-loads of U.S. Military Academy cadets who made the trip from West Point to say goodbye to a teammate, classmate and brother.
The framed black jersey with the dark gold 28, the number Jackson wore while quickly becoming one of the Black Knights’ best players in a college football career that lasted just 14 games.
Hundreds of people came together Monday at a funeral for Jackson, the sophomore cornerback killed in a one-car accident during the early morning hours of Sept. 11 at the age of 20.
He was remembered for his uplifting smile and infectious confidence. For rapping 50 Cent lyrics on the school bus and pushing teammates to lift more weight than even coaches required of them. For an accent that mixed Queens with a splash of Savannah, Georgia. For never giving his mom a reason to “raise her hand to him.” And for leaving her a new extended family.
“You will never have to worry years from now if this group of men will remember your son,” Academy superintendent Lt. Gen Robert L. Caslen said to Davis, an Iraq war veteran of the Army reserves. “You may have lost Brandon, but you have gained about 120 new sons. And about 4,000 cadets.”
Photos of Jackson were displayed on two large video boards at the front of The Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in the Jamaica section of Queens. They told the story “of a life barely 20 years lived, and it was jam packed,” the Rev. Alfonso Wyatt said during a rousing and rhythmic eulogy.
Baby Brandon with a Big Bird doll bigger than him. Brandon in his Bayside Raiders Pee Wee football uniform. Celebrating at track meets. Prom. Graduation. Receiving his acceptance to the academy. Playing for the Black Knights.
The accident that killed Jackson occurred about 20 miles south of the West Point campus in Westchester County. The crash, which remains under investigation, happened several hours after Army had defeated Rice in the Black Knights’ home opener at Michie Stadium.
The team returned to the practice field a few days later and last Saturday improved to 3-0 for the first time since 1996 with a 66-14 victory at UTEP.
“Through you, his spirit was on the field,” Jackson’s uncle, Fitzgerald Miller, told his teammates.
The Black Knights play at Buffalo on Saturday.
When Davis was deployed, Jackson was sent to live with his grandparents in Savannah. It is in Georgia where he will be buried, Miller said.
Out of loyalty to his mother, Jackson developed a love for Army football.
“We can beat them boys,” Miller recalled a young Brandon saying.
“Who is we?” his uncle asked.
“Army. Army can beat Navy,” Miller said was the boy’s reply.
Jackson mostly grew up in the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens and attended Holy Cross High School, a bus ride away in Flushing. The school has a tradition of playing some of the best football in the city. Recent graduates include former Stanford receiver Devon Cajuste and Carolina Panthers safety Dean Marlowe.
Longtime former Holy Cross coach Tom Pugh, who retired after the 2014 season, said he went to West Point to watch Jackson in the Army spring game this year. Pugh said he told Jackson the old coach expected his former player to make an interception during the intrasquad scrimmage.
“And he started laughing,” Pugh said. “He goes: ‘Coach, this is Army. We don’t throw the ball.’
“And guess what, he got a pick in the spring game. He pointed up to the seats where I was. He was special. Special young man.”
Jackson was being recruited by Lafayette College in Pennsylvania during high school, but when the coach recruiting him, John Loose, was hired by Army head coach Jeff Monken, the opportunity to play for the Black Knights became a reality.
Jackson earned a starting job as a freshman and had 68 career tackles and three interceptions.
“Brandon embodied everything it means to be part of this brotherhood,” Army linebacker and co-captain Andrew King said. “Because of him, we’re not afraid of failure.”
Monken said Jackson had a disarming smile.
Even after a mistake on the field, “I couldn’t stay mad at him,” Monken said.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and members of his staff attended the service. Monken worked as an assistant for Niumatalolo at Navy from 2002-07.
The program mourners received at the church had printed on the front over a photo of Jackson: “Celebration of a Life Full of Promise and Purpose.” A two-hour viewing preceded the service, the casket half open to display Jackson in cadet’s full dress and white cap. The service was about two hours and ended with Wyatt imploring those gathered to “keeping on marching.”
“March through the tears. March through the fears. March through your pain. Keep on marching,” he said to applause and replies of “Amen.”
When it was over, the cadets, police officers and high school football players lined the usually busy two-lane street in front of the cathedral. Six cadets carried Brandon’s casket, covered with an American flag, out of the church and slid it into a hearse as the rows of cadets saluted and a police officer played bagpipes.
The black car was filled with flowers, then drove away. Those left behind cried, hugged and slowly dispersed, making it clear that Wyatt’s words from earlier would ring true.
“This is a seminal moment. A defining moment,” Wyatt preached. “You will remember No. 28.”